In March of 1862, Philadelphia printer Samuel Curtis Upham began to advertise in northern newspapers the sale of “perfect fac-similes” of Confederate currency. Upham, who would become the Philadelphia Counterfeiter, ran a store at 403 Chestnut Street in the city of Philadelphia where he sold stationary, newspapers and cosmetics.
Mr. Upham was considered a respectable businessman and an ardent Union patriot. As an entrepreneur, Upham always had an eye out on opportunities to make a buck. Looking at a Confederate bill, he realized that he could print counterfeit notes without fear of being arrested. After all, the notes were being circulated by the enemy of his country.
His idea came after The Philadelphia Inquirer printed an edition on February 24, 1862 that featured a fac-simile of $5 Confederate note on page one. The newspapers quickly sold out because no one in the city had ever seen Confederate money. Upham quickly bought the printing plate for the money and printed 3,000 copies on French letter paper.
Along the bottom of each bill, he printed a small line of copy that said “Fac-simile Confederate Note” with his name and address. Once the thin strip was cut off, the note became a perfect counterfeit bill.
Within a month, Upham’s modest souvenir retail business exploded into a high-volume operation. People were ordering 1,000 notes at a time, clearly for purposes other than souvenirs. Upham advertised for other denominations and offered to pay for them in gold.
By April 1862, the counterfeit bills began to appear in Richmond, the Confederate capital. The Confederate Treasury Department asked the Richmond Daily Dispatch to inform the public of the danger of counterfeit bills. Eventually, the newspaper received a note with Upham’s name on it and printed this description of the Philadelphia Counterfeiter: “A knave swindler, and forger of the most depraved and despicable sort.”
By May of 1862, Upham had expanded his product line to include 14 different Confederate notes, postage stamps and “shinplasters”: fractional bills worth from 5 to 15 cents. He was printing the counterfeit items on real banknote paper to increase their authenticity.
The officials in Richmond believed that Upham was part of a conspiracy in cooperation with the Union government that was attempting to destabilize the Confederate system of currency. Union soldiers were using his currency in captured parts of the South, further causing havoc with the Confederate economy.
At the height of Upham’s counterfeiting, it is believed that up to 3% of all Confederate currency were his counterfeits, an incredible sum of money. As 1862 wore on, Confederate authorities began to take increasing notice of the situation, castigating both Upham and the Union government. By August of 1862, counterfeit bills were found from Atlanta to Savannah, Montgomery and all across the Deep South in most major cities.
Meanwhile, the Union government studiously avoided any discussions about the counterfeiting operation. They never interfered with his printing operation and allowed it to continue unabated.
By August 1863, Confederate currency had been devalued to such a degree that Upham discontinued his operation in August of 1863. In the time that Samuel Curtis Upham, the Philadelphia Counterfeiter, operated his counterfeiting business, Confederate currency fell in value by 90%.
Upham wasn’t the only counterfeiter to print Confederate banknotes. Other counterfeiting gangs were printing and circulating phony bills in both the North and the South. Upham estimated that over the 18 months he had printed $15 million in counterfeit bills.